I am a Romanian-American award-winning novelist and playwright. I arrived in the United States in 1983 as a political refugee, having escaped the Communist Dictatorship of my native country. I obtained a PhD in French and Italian Literatures from the University of Chicago, in 1992. I am the author of three critically acclaimed novels: Train to Trieste (Knops 2009 & 2010), Black Sea Twilight (Transworld 2010 & 2011) and Country of Red Azaleas (Grand Central Hachette 2016). Train to Trieste was published in thirteen languages and is the 2009 winner of the Best Fiction Award from the Library of Virginia. Both Train to Trieste and Black Sea Twilight were best sellers in the UK, in 2009 and 2011, respectively. I have also authored three books of original plays and more than a dozen books and edited collections of literary criticism. I am twice a Fulbright scholar and a distinguished service professor of French and Comparative Literature at Washington and Lee University.
You can buy Dream in a Suitcase here.
Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?
The story of my own life inspired and motivated me to write this memoir. I am a fiction writer and left my native country of Romania precisely to be able to accomplish my dream of being an artist of the written and spoken word which I have largely achieved. I did not have the intention of writing a memoir when my first novel, Train to Trieste was published and everybody was asking me if the novel was autobiographical which I found profoundly annoying and uninspiring. I swore then I would never write my memoir. But three novels and several edited collections later, there came a time in my life and artistic journey when I felt that crafting the story of my life into a book would be a worthwhile endeavor and might be inspiring for other immigrants and immigrant artists. So never say never.
What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?
I have been a French, Italian and Comparative Literature Professor for most of my professional life (more than 30 years), as well as a theater director, a literary critic and a social justice activist.
I am also a passionate long-distance open-water swimmer and in 2021 I swam across the Bosporus straight in Istanbul in an intercontinental competition with 2500 other swimmers from all over the world. The swim was four and a half miles in open water and currents and I completed it in 86 minutes. It is one feat I am proud of as it was a real test of endurance and a mind-over-body kind of experience.
Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?
The title of Dream in a Suitcase has lived inside me for a long time, as it refers to the fact that I left my native country as a young woman carrying a small suitcase with all my belongings and some very big dreams of becoming a novelist, a playwright, a creative artist. In that suitcase I was also carrying a collection of short stories written in my native Romanian that had won a literary prize. Throughout my journey as an immigrant I have eventually accomplished most of these dreams hidden in my old Romanian suitcase.
How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?
I chose the book cover of my book myself. It is a photograph of a capsized refugee ship on the shores of the Mediterranean, taken by an award-winning photographer and friend, Florinda Ruiz. It struck me as a perfect symbol for the immigration journey, even though I did not leave my country by water, but on a plane. Covers do not have to be literal, I prefer symbolic or metaphoric images. Plus in my memoir there are many references and scenes of oceans and seas, which makes the cover even more poignant. This being my first memoir, and my fourth book of creative writing, I was both excited and nervous when it came out and I held it in my hands. In my memoir I have revealed many personal aspects of my life in a very honest way and I was anxious about the fall out and about being “canibalized” or judged by both readers and the press. But instead, to my very pleasant surprise, readers, reviewers and interviewers have been extremely appreciative of the often brutal honesty of the book, as well as its occasional self-deprecating humor and poetic writing style.
If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?
Actually there are numerous mentions of songs and music in the book. For instance songs by the French singer Edith Piaf (La vie en rose, Non, je ne regrette rien), the blues, Chopin’s waltzes, Romanian folkloric music, Patsy Cline’s song “Crazy,” Bruce Springstein’s “Hungry Heart,” Mexican love songs. It would be a very eclectic soundtrack.
What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?
The main thing to take away is to keep one’s inner core and authenticity throughout all of life’s storms and vicissitudes, to follow one’s path uncompromisingly, to live lucidly, with love of the world and with imagination. I do not believe that such a thing as a perfect reader exists. I write for all readers all over the world now and for posterity. Writing for me is not just what I do, but who I am, what gives meaning to my existence. So all I can hope from any reader coming in contact with my writing and in particular with my memoir, Dream in a Suitcase, is that they read it with openness of mind and compassion in their heart and that they delve into it without any preconceived ideas, but rather allow the story to percolate inside them.
What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?
The reactions and feedback I have received from readers in my various book launch and reading events, particularly from women who identified with the aspects of my book that recount gendered experiences such as being an immigrant mother, a female academic and artist.
What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?
I am completing two novels, one titled My Father’s Orchards, a historical novel with elements of magical realism and the other If I Die Before I See You, a flamboyant love story across two continents and several cultures. And I am training for more open-water swimming expeditions.
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